Right-wing comedian’s prison sentence sparks free-speech debate in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO – Danilo Gentili is one of Brazil’s most popular – and most offensive – comedians, with a late-night talk show and a massive Twitter following. A typical Gentili joke might speculate about this man’s sexual orientation or deride that woman’s weight.
But a burst of tweets against a congresswoman – at one point, he implied she was a prostitute – proved too vulgar for Brazil’s legislators, and in 2017, he was ordered to delete the offensive tweets. So, in characteristic response, he tore the order into pieces and rubbed them on his genitals in a video that went viral.
In the view of the Brazilian judiciary, Gentili had gone too far, and this month a court ordered him jailed for six months. The judge found that Gentili’s action was “intended to offend” and “never to be confused with a simple piece of spontaneous humor.”
Gentili has cast himself as a martyr to political correctness: “I never imagined one day being sentenced to prison for protesting against censorship,” he tweeted.
He is appealing, and legal analysts say he’s unlikely to see the inside of a cell. But the line between offensive and criminally offensive has become a central issue in Brazil today, as the nation’s institutions – including its new president – test the boundaries of the freedom of expression.
Brazilian law, which is largely modeled on the U.S. system, includes in its constitution echoes of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. But a criminal provision that allows penalties for those who “disrespect” public officials opens a loophole for censorship.
That loophole, combined with a culture of high-level rule-dodging, has yielded several recent incidents that have provoked the concern of Brazilians and international observers alike – and created strange bedfellows in support of free speech: Gentili’s defenders…